Dennis Anderson
See more of the story

History intrigued Raymond Hanson when he was a kid, especially the mid- to late 1800s when the West was being settled. Buffalo hunting was part of this, and the rifles used during that time were of particular interest to the young boy from northwest Minnesota.

They still are.

The reigning world champion long-range muzzleloader marksman, Hanson began some years ago shooting these retro firearms at targets 300 yards down range. Then he aligned his sights at 500 yards, and finally 600 yards.

Today, he never shoots at targets that close. Instead he configures the iron sights of his replica Billinghurst Under Hammer at focal points 1,000 yards away.

Hanson, 67, who lives near Mahnomen, won his world championship title last year shooting in Australia in a match in which he and his colleagues also won the World Long-Range Muzzleloading team title, prevailing over South Africa, the perennial favorite.

“It was a great match for the U.S.,” Hanson said. “Additionally, we won the mid-range title [300, 500 and 600 yards] and the grand aggregate championship.”

This weekend, U.S. long-range muzzleloading team members will shoot in a match about 1½ hours north of the Twin Cities, near Harris, hosted by the Gopher Rifle and Revolver Club.

As interested as hunters might be in guns, few can match the passion with which Hanson and his long-range muzzleloading colleagues study the minutia of firearms, ballistics and marksmanship.

Consider:

• Though Hanson’s Billinghurst is a “replica” in the long-range muzzleloading game, it was built from scratch, utilizing the skills and handiwork of experts intimately familiar with U.S. gun lore. An East Coast gunsmith did the metal work, for example, while the tempering and stock making were accomplished at still different locations.

• All long-range muzzleloader competition shooters cast their own bullets.

“Most rifles we shoot date to the end of the buffalo hunting era,” Hanson said. “They’re a minimum of .40 caliber, but most are .45s. They shoot what could be described as great big lead bullets. You can’t buy these, at least not in quality that is consistent, bullet to bullet. So we cast them ourselves, one at a time.”

• Most long-range muzzleloading bullets are 540 grain and leave the muzzle at speeds of 1,300 to 1,350 feet per second.

• About 5.5 seconds pass from the time a shooter squeezes a trigger to when a bullet hits a target 1,000 yards down range.

“It’s not something you want to do regularly, because it indicates that your shooting might be far off, it is possible to shoot, then quickly roll over into your spotting scope to see where the bullet hits,” Hanson said.

Though little known today, long-range muzzleloading competitions date to the late 1800s, when the first international match pitted the U.S. against Ireland in front of some 20,000 Long Island spectators.

The winner?

The Americans, thanks to an Irishman’s low-scoring shot in the last round.

An active club

David Newell is president of the Gopher Rifle and Revolver Club, a relatively low-profile group that nonetheless boasts 550 members who pay $195 annually in dues.

The club hosts about 300 events a year and attracts members with a wide array of shooting interests. Founded in the 1940s by returning World War II veterans, the club’s original site was in Anoka County and featured a 500-yard range.

In the 1970s, the club moved to its current 400-acre site near Harris.

“If members are willing to work a couple of days a year they can reduce their dues,” Newell said. “They get $45 credit for each day worked at the range, reducing their dues to $105 a year.”

New members often join the club with multiple shooting interests, Newell said. “But once they’re exposed to the different disciplines represented by our members, they usually concentrate on one or two,” he said.

Newell shoots a black powder cartridge rifle — an 1885 Winchester Hi-Wall, for which John Browning was awarded his first patent. The gun shoots .45 caliber cartridges loaded with 70 grains of black powder.

Hanson’s Billinghurst, by contrast, though shooting the same bullet, more closely resembles the nation’s earliest muzzleloading rifles. Rather than chambering a cartridge like Newell does, Hanson pours loose black powder down the barrel of his muzzleloader. Then, with the barrel standing straight up, he drops a cast lead bullet into the barrel and, using a ramrod, packs the bullet onto the powder.

When Hanson squeezes the trigger, slamming the gun’s hammer against a primer, the primer sparks the black powder, which explodes.

Typically, mid-range competitive muzzleloader shooters lie prone and are aided by slings. Those who shoot at 1,000 yards can also use a wrist rest.

Eyes on worlds

The U.S. International Muzzle Loading Committee is the governing body that will select American teams to compete in England next year at the world championships.

“Usually there will be 50 to 70 individuals from a dozen countries competing in long-range muzzleloading,” Hanson said. “For next year’s U.S. long-range muzzleloading team, 12 members will probably be selected. Most will be from east of the Mississippi, because that’s where most of our 1,000-yard ranges are. That’s one of our problems — access to 1,000-yard ranges.”

On Saturday at Harris, 10 long-range muzzleloaders who competed were from outside Minnesota. Each hopes to make next year’s England-bound U.S. team.

“It’s not a cheap sport,” Hanson said. “Even for the England trip, team members will pay most of their own expenses. But I’m living proof that if you spend enough time shooting, and also spend enough money on an obscure enough sport, you, too, can excel.”

Dennis Anderson • danderson@startribune.com